Celebrated New Orleans singer-songwriter and saxophonist Robert Parker, writer of the 1960s smash-hit “Barefootin’,” has passed away at the age of 89.
In a one-sheet promo, Jerry Reuss shared details of Parker’s life and career. Parker was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 14, 1930. When he was a teenager, he began playing saxophone and soon was playing behind local legend Professor Longhair. Parker began playing at the Tijuana Club in the 40s and 50s which introduced him to booking agent Percy Stovall as well as encouraged Parker to start his own band, Robert Parker and the Royals, who toured around the southern US. Parker was highly sought-after for session recording. New Orleans artists such as Jimmy Clanton, Ernie K-Doe, Fats Domino, Frankie Ford, Irma Thomas and Huey “Piano” Smith all hired him to play on their recordings, earning him high respect and regard around the city. During his tenure with the Tijuana Club house band, he shared the stage with icons including Ray Charles and Little Richard.
In the late 50s and early 60s, Parker worked as a solo act under a few local labels; however, nothing garnered major success. After the collapse of the music industry economy in 1963, Parker began working a day job at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, though still continued to work with his booking agency. Despite the challenge Parker faced, he continued to focus on his music and maintained the hope that he would be able to return to the music industry.
In 1966, Parker’s agent booked him a gig at Tuskegee University in Alabama. It was there that he received inspiration for the song that would become “Barefootin’”: “The girls took their shoes off and piled them in front of the bandstand before they danced. That stayed with me,” Parker once said. In other instance, Parker played a show in Miami with a comedian who came on stage and said “Everybody get on your feet, you make me nervous when you’re in your seat,” which became the opening line of “Barefootin’.”
After going back and forth with labels, NOLA Records eventually pressed a couple of boxes of records of the single, which sold right away. This prompted one of NOLA Records owners, Ulis Gaines, to take the record to local stations which caused the single to take off. “Barefootin’” peaked at the number-two spot on the R&B charts and remained on the charts for 17 weeks.
The legacy of “Barefootin’” still remains alive in New Orleans, with the song used in commercials for radio and television, and it’s likely one can hear the song while walking down the streets of New Orleans. In a 2006 article on “Classic Songs of Louisiana” for OffBeat, Jeff Hannusch wrote of “Barefootin,'” “[It] was irresistible because it combined the old New Orleans syncopated beat with contemporary soul. Along with ‘Tell It Like It Is,’ it briefly lifted the New Orleans recording scene out of the mid to 1960s doldrums. ‘Barefootin’ missed topping the charts by one place and reached number seven in the pop charts in the U.S.A. It was a huge international hit as well, even reaching the U.K. charts for the second time in 1987.”
In 2012 Robert Parker received OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music along with Jean Knight, The Dixie Cups, Frankie Ford, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Ernie Vincent. The tribute band was lead by Ernie Vincent with each recipient performing their hit song. Looking frail, Robert Parker managed to get on stage, but when the music played he was transformed into a younger version of himself, wowing the audience.
The Parker family says funeral arrangements are pending.